Mongolia is a breathtaking country of vast steppes, desert, sand dunes, rivers, high mountains, wildlife and nomadic families. It is located in between China and Russia and the best time to visit is during May to September. The temperatures across the country can vary from an extreme minus 50C in winter and +45C in summer and we experienced all seasons in 10 days in September! Most of the time it was sunny but one day it went from +21C and we were wearing t- shirts in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar and then 5 hours later it was -1C and snowing. We could not comprehend how the nomadic families survive in the Gers (tents) at -50C even with the small wood stove they use as heating and for cooking. The country is vast but only has a population of 3.5 million with tourists mainly visiting from Korea, China and Russia. The ‘Land of the Blue Sky’ is a unique, mysterious, picturesque nation with beautiful hard-working Buddhist people.
Usually tourists stop in Mongolia on the famous Trans-Siberian or Trans-Mongolian train journeys and generally visit the capital city Ulaanbaatar and then perhaps stop at Terelj National park to experience staying overnight in a Ger and ride a horse. However, there are many more stunning areas across Mongolia and also some incredible festivals.
The Nomadic culture that has been in existence for centuries, roam the countryside to find the best grazing and water to breed and feed their livestock. Even though they live in Gers (not yurts as locals don’t like the Russian term) they are not poor as they make money from the meat, dairy products, vodka, cashmere, leather and tourism. We were fascinated that they had solar panels, satellite dishes and Prius cars but, outside of a few modern conveniences, nothing else has changed in centuries and they are happy with the simple lifestyle in the Ger that dates back even before Ghenghis Khan days.
We were lucky enough to see how the local families (usually husband and wife) construct the Ger in just 2 hours and they usually move 2- 4 times a year. The children usually go away to school and come back on weekends or for holidays. We were fortunate to visit a few families (not just the typical stops designed for tourists) and they were so hospitable offering us the sheep’s milk, vodka and curd in their homes and explaining their lifestyle. It was magical to see the horses, camels, cattle, goats, sheep, yak and majestic eagles and vultures in the remote landscapes.
Most of the world is familiar with the powerful Emperor Ghenghis Khan (or locally Chinggis Khaan) who was considered a brutal warrior but he and his family are still celebrated for building Modern Mongolia. He had powerful achievements in the 12th Century including religious tolerance, a unified writing system and the expansion of his massive Mongol Empire help expand successful trade communication (i.e. Silk Road). At the peak of his reign, it was the largest empire in the history of the world, in terms of contiguous land-mass, spreading west to Romania, covering most of the Middle-East and all of Russia and Eastern Europe, East past Korea and into the Sea of Japan, and South included China and Taiwan.
It is highly recommended to visit the Gobi Desert which showcases the Central Asian desert in Mongolia with wild animals, nomadic families, dinosaur history, incredible landscapes and peaceful starry nights. Southern Mongolia has the best-kept secrets of real dinosaur fossils, amazing colourful cliffs, sand dunes, snowy mountains and interesting incredible local culture.
We flew to Dalanzadgad which was 1 hour 15min flight from Ulanbaatar (similar experience Melbourne-Tasmania) and arrived in small shed airport and visited a local museum of dinosaur fossils. We spent three full days exploring the region with a lot of 4 x 4 driving with vast landscapes and stayed in some beautiful tourist Ger camps. We were perplexed that the ‘desert’ was covered in green and it was explained that was Gobi onion, not grass. as there had been a lot of rain and the camels, horses and sheep enjoy grazing on it.
The first stop on the circuit was Bayanzag Flaming Cliffs which reminded me of Grand Canyon and Badlands in USA . In 1922 and 1923, Roy Chapman Andrews and his crew discovered real dinosaur skeletons, eggs and fossils.
The next day we were surprised to see sand dunes appear amongst the vast green steppes at Khongor and they stretch for 180km with snowy mountains in the background. The following day we rode Mongolian horses through the amazing Yoliin Am Gorge in the Gurvan Saikhan National Park, gazing at rugged rocky mountain faces with ibex goats climbing, eagles soaring and beautiful freshwater rivers running through and wildflowers. We also met some nomadic families and saw camels, desert mice, lambs, goats, sheep. If you are very lucky, you can see snowy leopards, Gobi bears and lynx in this region.
We enjoyed the Mongolian beers and three course meals at the camps and marvelled at the spectacular starry skies. Our Ger camps have cozy quilts and some had stoves. The Ger is made of sheep’s wool and lattice woodwork with two centre mainframes. Some camps have cabins with ensuites, laundries, kayaks, bicycles and rafts.
My husband Luke Ballard who is a photographer captured some amazing airborne shots with a drone of the desert.
ULAANBAATAR AND SURROUNDING NATIONAL PARKS
The capital city Ulaanbaatar of 1.2 million is surrounded by mountains but has heavy traffic (every second car is a Prius as they import second hand cars from Japan). They have modern hotels and mixture of soviet- union style buildings from Russian days, many hot pot restaurants and shopping malls, cashmere shops, museums and businesses. Food and drinks were inexpensive – you could buy a large beer bottle for $2.50. About 1-2 hours out of the city we visited the Great Chinggis equestrian statue complex (Guinness Book of Records for tallest in the world) that had an interesting museum and incredible views from the head. We then saw the beautiful Buddhist mediation temple, visited Big Turtle Rock and the stunning Terelj National Park.
On our return from Gobi Desert we also drove to Gun Galuut nature reserve near where the Nomad’s Day festival was held and the Steppe Nomads tourist camp had great facilities. We enjoyed a local dance performance from a small village school and had a fancy Ghengis Khan feast with special cuisine and a late night drinking and chatting with the village elders.
The most famous festival is the Nadaam festival held annually in July. It is an expensive time to travel but it is an epic event with thousands of locals and tourists cheering the horse races, archery, wrestling all in traditional costumes. GetAboutAsia promotes a tour you can do with friends or family or you can join a small group.
During August, you can visit North Mongolia to see the Reindeer Festival near Lake Khovskul which is known as the Blue Pearl and is the pride of Mongolia. The Tsaatan clan bring their reindeer down from remote mountains and explain their Shaman religion. During the festival, they have local songs, dances and games.
In September, there is Nomad’s Day Festival which is a mini version of Nadaam arranged near Gun Galuut reserve – about 3 hours from Ulaanbaatar which runs for 2 days (17th and 18th September.) We were fortunate enough to attend this festival that showcases the local archery men and women champions, local children jockeys that walked the horses then ran back in the 15km race in the desert and champion Mongolian wrestlers. We watched the proud local villagers and entertainment – everyone adorned in traditional costumes including throat singers, cup dancers, kids playing knuckles, best dressed horse couple and a re-enactment of how nomadic families travel and set up Gers and how they make curd, Airag (fermented sheeps milk), vodka and horse games.
We participated in the metropolitan games where the westerners had to scoop cow and horse poop into baskets on their backs, saddle horses and build Ger fences and amazingly a Dutch gentleman and I won the competition.
In October, Mongolia organises the famous Golden Eagle hunting festival (Horseman train the Eagles to hunt prey in a competition) located in Western Mongolia where the majestic Altai Mountains stretch over 900km. In the national park there is Mongolia’s largest lake UNESCO Uvs Lake Basin, caves with ancient rock paintings, horse riding, trekking, fishing, 4x 4 driving. There is an excellent documentary Eagle Huntress about the first young girl to be successful training her eagle to hunt.
To sum up, the best time to travel to Mongolia is May-September in the next few years and if you can during a festival. There are now many modern influences and we hope the Nomadic culture continues for future generations but it is recommended to go soon before there is too many tourist resort camps in the national parks. The festivals are once in a life-time experiences which are unforgettable cultural memories.
- The Mongolian currency is ‘tugrug’ and you can change USD money over at the bank or use the ATMS.
- Take colouring books and pens, toys and gifts for the local children.
- Advise your dietary requirements when booking as the local cuisine is generally beef or lamb with potatoes and soup, salad. Be open-minded about the cuts of meat- we did not mind the beef tongue, kneecaps, neck and shoulder (we probably eat some of these at home at not realize the cuts).
- Be polite and accept all offerings (yes the camels milk and sheeps milk is sour but you are usually visiting their homes).
- Take layers of clothes- it can get hot and cold in the desert.
- The best souvenirs to buy is cashmere and leather.
- It is rude to point, show your feet or touch the locals head.
- To get your visa, you need an invitation letter in a prearranged tour private or group- you can not travel independently and if you are staying extra nights before or after you need to advise for the visa.
- Be prepared for soft adventure- when you are in the desert there is limited places to go to the toilet outside the tourist camps. Otherwise it is suitable for all ages.
- Bring snacks or buy some in local supermarket for the 4wd driving- the landscapes and nomadic families are spread-out.
GetAboutAsia can assist with private tailored tours with our experienced award-winning drivers and local English speaking guides, festivals or book solo travellers on small group tours. We can upgrade to many tourist Ger camps that have private ensuites and we can tailor itineraries to space out the driving. Our ground local staff have won Responsible Tourism awards and have over 20 years experience. Our staff can assist you with flights via Hong Kong, Seoul or China and arrange the visa invitation letter so you can arrange your visa through the embassy in Canberra.